Switching off from Clinton

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 December, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 December, 1998, 12:00am

FOR much of 1974, America was gripped by Watergate fever.

An estimated 90 per cent of the country watched blanket television coverage of Congress' impeachment hearings, crowds gathered for days outside the White House, and car bumper stickers said of president Richard Nixon: 'Honk if you think he's guilty.' When Nixon resigned rather than face a Senate impeachment trial, the nation's sense of shock was tempered with a huge collective sigh of relief.

But the public is barely casting a glance towards Capitol Hill 24 years later as the House of Representatives moves towards voting to impeach President Bill Clinton.

'It's totally different now,' said presidential scholar Stephen Hess, of the Brookings Institution in Washington. 'This time there is no electricity, outside, perhaps, of a ring around the Capitol.

'In 1974, there was the expectation that we were about to depose the first president in US history. There is no expectation of that now.' Political pollster Patrick Caddell said the public's apparent indifference was 'the weirdest disconnection that I have ever seen in American politics between the elected and the electorate.

'This really does say something serious about the health of the body politic that the American people are not more engaged in this.' While cable news stations have provided live coverage of Judiciary Committee hearings, major networks interrupted regular programmes only when the panel voted on Friday on the articles of impeachment.

'There seems to be little appetite on the part of the public for extended coverage of this,' CBS News spokeswoman Sandra Genelius said.

Mr Hess believes this is because the public decided Mr Clinton's actions did not merit impeachment when news of the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke in January.

Recent opinion polls have shown a steady two-to-one margin opposing removing the President from office. Censure - an option still opposed by the Republican leadership - has been favoured by most Americans for many weeks.

'A lot of Americans don't see what all the fuss is about in Washington, and in the long run they feel it won't affect them,' Mr Hess said.

'The House might vote for impeachment, but there is no feeling that the Senate will remove him from office.' Cable news channels also seem to have bored the public with saturation coverage, even though nothing has really changed in the story since it broke.

'The Watergate process in 1974 was more like a Hitchcock movie - the public kept learning more and more as it went along,' Mr Hess said.

The constantly developing dramas, such as revelations of the missing White House tapes, and Nixon's desperate sacking of the independent counsel probing the case had Americans glued to their television sets.

Wall Street finally started to react to the threat of impeachment this week, with the stock market softening and the US dollar beginning to fall.

David Hale, chief Zurich Group economist, said any sell-off from an impeachment crisis would be short-lived.

He said what the market feared most was not the loss of Mr Clinton but the resignation of popular Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin in his wake.

'If Rubin resigned, that would be a major event. There would be an immediate sell-off in the dollar,' Mr Hale said.